Monday, May 13, 2013

Death and the News

Hamilton Nolan ponders our different national responses to violence at the Boston Marathon and the Mothers' Day Parade in New Orleans:
The shooting of nineteen innocent people, including two children, at a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans yesterday was an act of violence only gaudy enough to hold the nation’s attention momentarily. Shortly after the bodies were cleared, the FBI said they “have no indication the shooting was an act of terrorism. ‘It’s strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.’” At that, we were free to let our attention drift. In America, all villainy is not created equal.

A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media’s attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten.
The particular horror some people feel toward Islamic terrorists has always puzzled me. They just don't scare me very much. Or maybe fear isn't the right word for what we feel toward them; Rod Dreher observed that he has many friends who won't go to New Orleans from fear of violence, but they would all to go Boston in a minute. Horror?

The news obsession with certain violent acts, especially school shootings, plane crashes, and terrorism, grossly distorts the real risks of life. This would not matter except that it leads to horrific misallocation of resources by our government, which would rather spend $50 million tracking down two terrorists than $50,000 to help the New Orleans police.


Neal Gray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Is there any real puzzle here? Islamic terrorists provoke attention and rage (not in my view horror or fear) because their acts are overtly political. That the government, with the full support of the population, allocates considerable resources combating Islamic terrorism, has everything to do with the fact that such terrorism is an attack on the United States as a political community, and obviously nothing to do with any mathematical assessment of risk to life. There can be nothing genuinely surprising in this. Does any serious person pretend that our anti-terrorist policy is or should be about some sort of actuary-style determination of risk?

John said...

Me. I think we should apportion our resources precisely according to risk. I do not understand, really do not understand, why people are more scared of plane crashes than car crashes, or more worried about school shootings than about pancreatic cancer. I think we should spend our collective resources on our collective problems precisely according to how big a threat they are to our actual lives.

Why should we care more about an attack on the United States that is of no real consequence to anyone than about a random menace like global climate change that might be a million times more deadly?

Not to mention that our responses to terrorism, from invading Iraq to strip searches in airports, are far worse for us than terrorism is. The point of terrorism is to provoke a response; the way to defeat it is to ignore it completely.

David said...

I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this, since on this point our views are probably not susceptible to debate. It seems to me self-evident that our response to dangers should be political, not actuarial. Pancreatic cancer does not engage my political nature, not in the same, urgent way. This explains why I don't at all mind our current airport security procedures; our country asks very little of us, and if this is my part in thwarting al-Qaeda, I'm happy to do it. None of this means that I'm really a Republican, or that I support the Iraq disgrace, or that I think we should ignore climate change. For better or worse, I simply don't want or esteem a laughing rationalist approach to al-Qaeda.